Now a remote economic backwater, just over a hundred years ago Bolivia’s northern Amazon frontier was one of the most commercially desirable stretches of territory on earth. The region supports some of the richest natural rubber forests in the whole of the Amazon, and in the late nineteenth century a surge in international demand for rubber generated an unprecedented economic boom. Great fortunes were made by the so-called “rubber barons” who controlled production, but for the indigenous peoples of the Amazon the rubber boom was an unmitigated disaster. They were recruited by force to work collecting wild rubber under conditions of appalling brutality, and their population declined catastrophically. Little of the money made was reinvested, and when the boom ended in the early twentieth century with the establishment of rubber plantations in Asia, the region – and its main towns, agreeable Riberalta and Brazilian flavoured Guayaramerín – slipped back into the economic torpor which characterizes it today, with collection of wild Brazil nuts (known as castañas) the main export industry. To the north of Guayaramerín, the small and sleepy town of Cachuela Esperanza provides an atmospheric insight into the days of the rubber boom.
At the peak of his powers, Nicolás Suárez was the absolute ruler over more than six million hectares of rainforest where rubber was collected by a massive workforce of Caripuña Indians who were slaves in all but name. He also controlled the rapids that separated the Bolivian river system from the Amazon proper (charging huge tolls for the transport of cargo around them) and even raised a private army to fight the separatist rebellion of Brazilian settlers in the northern territory of Acre in 1899. With the annexation of Acre by Brazil, however, he lost many of his rubber holdings, and after the collapse of the rubber boom a few years later his empire gradually disintegrated. He died in Cachuela Esperanza in 1940, and though virtually forgotten elsewhere in Bolivia, in the Beni and Pando he is still revered by some as a heroic pioneer who brought progress and civilization to the wilderness. Ironically, decades later his great-nephew, Roberto Suárez, came to control a similarly powerful empire based on the export of another Amazonian product for which the industrialized world had developed an insatiable appetite – cocaine – amassing in the process a personal fortune so vast that in the 1980s he reputedly offered to pay off Bolivia’s entire national debt.
Guayaramerín is the last navigable point on the Río Mamoré, the most important waterway in the Bolivian Amazon. Downstream from Guayaramerín a series of nineteen cataracts and rapids, stretching for over 400km down the ríos Mamoré and Madeira, cuts off the Bolivian river network from Brazil and access to the Atlantic Ocean. During the rubber boom, Bolivians and foreign speculators dreamed of bypassing these rapids and opening up the Bolivian Amazon to trade with the world. In 1872 the US journalist and speculator George Church formed a company to build a railway circumventing the rapids. Yet the crews sent to begin the work met with immediate disaster: their boats sank, and ravaged by fever and Indian attacks the workforce abandoned their equipment and fled through the forest. Church’s company went bankrupt and the contractors concluded that the region was “a welter of putrefaction where men die like flies. Even with all the money in the world and half its population it is impossible to finish this railway.”
Church himself was undeterred, and by 1878 had raised enough financial support to launch another attempt, with equally disastrous consequences. By the time the project was abandoned three years later, five hundred workers had died but only 6km of track had been laid. But the dream of a railway around the rapids would not die. In 1903 Brazil promised to complete the project in compensation for the annexation of the Acre territory from Bolivia. Work began again in 1908, and three years later the Madeira–Mamoré Railway – or the Devil’s Railway, as it had become known – was finally completed. More than six thousand workers are thought to have died in its construction, a sacrifice that was quickly shown to have been made in vain, since the railway opened for business just as the Amazon rubber boom collapsed. The Brazilian government kept it running until 1972, when it was finally abandoned, its rusting rails, swallowed by encroaching jungle, providing an eloquent testimony to a failed dream of progress in the Amazon.